Many pro athletes have well-rounded backgrounds and have participated in many of the games people play. In fact, before sports became so ‘specialized’, most kids participated in different games in various leagues, depending on the time of year.
At the very least, most serious young hopefuls competed in track or cross country during their primary sport’s offseason. That often translated into multi-sport stars at the collegiate and amateur levels.
But to excel at the highest level in two totally separate fields of play is astonishingly rare. When you factor in the odds of the average person going pro in one sport already being astronomical, the thought of two seems impossible.
But it has certainly happened many times in the past. And often at world-famous levels.
In the late 80s and early 90s, both Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were high-profile athletes who achieved fame for their multiple talents. They had significant exposure through commercials and endorsements. They still appear on lists of ‘the greatest athletes of all time’ and are heralded as supermen. As a matter of fact, Jackson is often cited by many of his contemporaries as the greatest physical specimen they’ve ever faced – in both baseball and football!
Prior to them, names like Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrikson Zaharias echoed through the past as almost ghosts of greatness. Their achievements were heralded in the golden era of their games.
But what about those who achieved similar success but not quite the same level of recognition? Or, the special few who made it that far, but whose astounding athletic achievements have been somehow misplaced in time.
Here are three sometimes-forgotten sports stars who played professionally in two major leagues
#1 – Danny Ainge (MLB | NBA)
Of course, Danny Ainge is known as a member of the 1980s Boston Celtic teams, an impact player in Phoenix, and later as an NBA Coach and Executive. However, he also had a brief but promising career on the baseball diamond as well.
While Ainge was still intent on playing basketball at BYU, the expansion Toronto Blue Jays took him in the 15th round of the 1977 MLB amateur draft. He even started his pro career at the Triple-A level in 1978 and got called up later that year. In his impressive big-league debut, Ainge went 3-for-4 with three runs scored and an RBI.
Ainge would appear in 211 games, playing second base, third base, and the outfield. In his time with the organization, he would shuttle back and forth between the Blue Jays and the AAA Syracuse Chiefs. However, his true goal was to eventually play pro basketball.
He did so when he was selected with the 31st overall pick in the second round of the 1981 NBA Draft by Boston. Ainge never went back to baseball from there, winning two league championships. And the rest, as they say, is hoops history.
#2 – Gene Conley (MLB | NBA)
The hallowed sports city of Boston has a noted multi-talented star in its history. And a very decorated one at that.
Gene Conley has the distinction of being a pitcher for the Boston Braves and a member of the Boston Celtics. Drafted out of Richland High School in Washington state, he originally signed with the Braves in 1950 to begin his pro baseball career. He pitched for 10 seasons, finishing with a 91–96 record and 888 strikeouts while winning a World Series ring with the Braves in 1957.
Meanwhile, on the hardwood, Conley played two stints over 11 seasons, most prominently in Boston. (He took a five-year sabbatical from the court to simply focus on baseball, before eventually returning to the Celtics). He was a part of three NBA title teams, averaging 5.9 PPG as a valuable role player for Red Auerbach
That’s four championships in two sports for one pretty special player. And although the name Gene Conley is well-known in Beantown, it’s not often recognized enough elsewhere.
#3 – Brian Jordan (MLB | NFL)
Safety and outfielder Brian Jordan suited up for multiple teams in MLB, and notably played in the same defensive backfield as Deion Sanders. In fact? At different points, both were members of the Atlanta Falcons and Braves.
Jordan’s baseball career was much longer, and he had some impactful seasons as part of a talented group of St. Louis Cardinals outfielders in the late 90s. Combining both speed and power, Jordan was a well-rounded big leaguer for 16 seasons and made the All-Star team in 1999. He finished with a .282 career average in stints with the Cards, Rangers, Dodgers, and two separate tenures with the Braves.
Today he’s considered an Atlanta sports icon and still resides in the city. There, he founded the Brian Jordan Foundation and became a Braves commentator and analyst following his playing days.
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